Sixty-five years ago, today, Frank Capra’s It’s A Wonderful Life premiered at New York City’s Globe Theater. The film’s release had been pushed back from January, in order to try and grab a portion of the holiday box office and secure eligibility for that year’s Academy Awards. Although the film’s later popularity doesn’t match its initial reception, it was hardly a critical or financial bust–on the contrary, Capra’s first postwar film generated modestly positive reviews and similaraudience response. On the occasion of this Christmas classic’s anniversary, we thought it only fair to consider it from an alcohol and drugs history perspective.
When viewed through a Points lens, alcohol and drinking appear everywhere in It’s A Wonderful Life:the pharmacist, Mr. Gower, appears to be drinking in the scene where he make a potentially dangerous error; Uncle Billy has, shall we say, a close relationship to the bottle; and, of course, protagonist George Bailey heads right for a drink (and a prayer) at the lowest point of his life. This part of the drinking puzzle in the film seems fairly straightforward: drinking as a response to emotional stress and personal trauma, a frame with a long history behind it.
But, there’s also Pottersville, the alternative universe that Clarence, George’s guardian angel, allows George to visit when our hero opines bleakly that he’s “worth more dead than alive.” Pottersville is Bedford Falls as if George Bailey had never lived, a place the film rather bluntly tells us has given itself over to gaudy entertainments, sexual license, immorality and, of course, a particular kind of drinking establishment. As Nick, the new owner of Martini’s, tells George, “We serve hard drinks in here for men who want to get drunk fast….” More to the point, the residents of George Bailey’s hometown seem to have given themselves over to vice. And therein lies another, more complicated, part of the puzzle of It’s A Wonderful Life–why Pottersville?
Here, the film seems to be balancing two distinct perspectives. In one sense, the Pottersville sequence shares a postwar film noir visual (recall the famous close up of George Bailey’s horrified face, gazing up at what his town has become) and a film noir vision–the notion that the dark and the ugly reside not all that deeply within America, never far from the surface.
On the other hand, there’s an important difference between It’s a Wonderful Life and the film noir vision. The latter rarely offers tidy tales of redemption, while Capra serves up an overwhelming portion of good news to wrap things up. Why the difference? In a sense, film noir shows us the corruption of everyman. Capra, on the other hand, holds fast to his prewar vision of the corruption of monied interests. In other words, residents of Pottersville aren’t really responsible for their behavior, or the condition of their town. Ultimately, the Mr. Potters of the world are to blame. The corruption is top down, making it ultimately easier to defeat. To comprehend that vision–including the alcohol connection–it is worth going back to Capra’s first directorial effort, The Strong Man, from 1926.
This silent film was a comedy, featuring a Belgian solider coming to America after the Great War to find the American girl with whom we had been corresponding. The comedic elements of the film derive both from the young man’s awkward transition to the bright lights of America, and to the gap between the couple’s imaginings of each other and the reality of who they actually are. The young woman (Mary Brown) lives with her preacher father in the fictional town of Cloverdale. The Reverend Brown is a dry, through and through–a prohibitionist who believes that drink is ruining Cloverdale. And so it is; the town is overrun by corruption, prostitution, gambling, and bootleg liquor. Ultimately our Belgian hero helps clean up Cloverdale (working as a police officer!), restoring virtue to the place, in a transformation that offers an early and more earth-bound version of the magical return from Pottersville in It’s a Wonderful Life. For all of Capra’s well-known political conservatism, both of these films serve up a very old-fashioned cocktail of progressive era politics: the masses are simultaneously virtuous and readily misled; monied interests undermine the general welfare; and vices like drinking are both a product and a cause of corruption.
Joe Spillane is Professor of History at the University of Florida. He has authored Cocaine: From Medical Marvel to Modern Menace in the United States (Johns Hopkins Press, 2000) and co-edited Federal Drug Control: The Evolution of Policy and Practice (Haworth Press, 2004). More recently, he authored Coxsackie: The Life and Death of Prison Reform (Johns Hopkins Press, 2014). His current drug-related research agenda includes: the history and development of drug abuse liability assessment; reflections on the nature of drug epidemics; and examinations of drug war “harms” in historical context.